If I had a Hall of Fame ballot — and don’t worry, I do not — I’d put down nine names on it this year: Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire, Mike Piazza, Tim Raines, Curt Schilling and Alan Trammell.
Yes, there are some cheaters on that list: three definites and at least a couple of maybes. I am willing to penalize for steroids. But I can’t see leaving Bonds, Clemens and McGwire out of the Hall. For better and for worse, they’re part of the history of the game.
Rafael Palmeiro, on the other hand, is close enough to the borderline that I don’t mind leaving him off the list. His career numbers are deserving, but he was never a dominant force. His highest MVP finish was fifth place. Baseball-reference WAR puts him among his league’s top 10 players once (8th place in 1993).
And then there’s Sammy Sosa. He’s not in the same boat as Palmeiro because he was a true superstar. From 1998-2002, Sosa hit .306/.397/.649 with 292 homers. That’s 292 homers in five years! He led the NL in homers in 2000 and ’02 and RBI in 1998 and 2001. He had 63 homers and 141 RBI in 1999 and didn’t lead the league in either category.
But that five-year run supplies the vast majority of Sosa’s case. The problem with Sosa is that he just wasn’t that valuable over the course of the rest of his six 30-homer seasons. He started out as a fine defensive outfielder, but he lost most of his value there by the time he became a great hitter. His initial 30-homer campaigns came with lousy OBPs and few doubles. His later ones came with average OBPs and poor defense.
Look at where Sosa ranks on the career lists:
Compare that with McGwire. He’s two spots below Sosa on the home run list and just 68th in RBI, but he’s eighth in slugging, 10th in OPS and 13th in OPS+. McGwire was one of the greatest hitters of all-time. Sosa certainly had a great run, but he was also a product of his time. If he came up in 1979 or 1999, rather than 1989, his numbers wouldn’t be nearly as impressive.
Like most everyone else, I do believe Sosa was a cheater, even though there isn’t much besides one anonymous New York Times report to back that up. But the reason I don’t include him on my imaginary ballot is that I don’t believe he was good enough for long enough.